What a Million Words Will Get You

I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.

The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in.  I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’  But you know what I did worry about?  For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style.  I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it.  I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it.  But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.

For writers style is everything.  Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes.  Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth.  Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers.  Imitation is fine.  It has its place and time.  Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.

I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it.  I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing.  Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style.  This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice.  Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality.  But style, I mean style.  That comes from somewhere else.

For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.  I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words.  A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words.  She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!

*Haaaaallelujah*

As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself.  Why hadn’t I gotten the message before?  All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling.  I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.

Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently.  This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry.  This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written.  It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical.  Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience.  I like the unusual, the weird.  Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston.  But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious.  At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.

I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice.  Write your million words – and I do mean a million.  Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did.  Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript?  Remember how I edited it down to 330?  It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!

Have I actually written a million words?  Honestly I don’t know.  A million words is around 3,000 pages.  Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time.  Probably almost three times that.  But I don’t think all of those words count.  Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments.  A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry.  A serious writer can do it in a few short years.  This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings.  But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.

Enjoy the process, my friends.  There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft.  Read a million words.  Write a million words.

And then write a million more.

T

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138 comments on “What a Million Words Will Get You

  1. […] (a new one) for spewing out literary genius in 25 minutes and work my way a little closer to The Million. By the end of this, I better be some kind of Essay Prompt […]

  2. amyclae says:

    Do you think it is possible that some individuals are simply ‘born’ with their own distinct voice?

    • emperort says:

      Hi Amy,

      I think what you’re asking is whether a person is able to express that voice early on (as a child, perhaps), and I am sure there are examples of that in history. I would also wager that those who could express themselves well as children still found some changes in their expression as they matured. Certainly it took at least a few years to learn and improve their writing skills.

  3. Brent Oh says:

    Should I read one word a million times?
    Should I read a million words one time?
    (((Be happy)))

  4. jcollyer says:

    Thank you so much for this!

  5. […] know I particularly worry about finding a voice and style. This blog post, ‘What a Million Words will Get You’ ,by T. James Moore went a long way to reassuring me. I strongly recommend a […]

  6. mbayryamali says:

    Very inspiring! Practice means perfection. My problem is that most of the times I don’t want even to practice in writing because I know I am writing with no style and my words sound even stupid. This in some way discourages me a lot…

    • emperort says:

      Try and remember that you are learning something that needs a lot of attention to understand. To be successful just continue to read and write every day. It’s so easy to get discouraged because we see all kinds of success going on ahead of us, but by reading and writing faithfully you will gradually see progress. By reading I mean read everything and by write I mean write something that helps you learn or express regardless of the format. Today you wrote an admission – that you are discouraged and feel inadequate. This is something you could explore in a short essay to yourself. Explore your limitations and push yourself to reach for new ways to express who you are. Your voice will come through immersion in the world of written language.

  7. Great post. I’d never heard the phrase about a million words but it makes sense. It’s very encouraging that even with creative processes like writing, practice makes perfect still applies. I will continue to write and hopefully find my “style.” Thanks for the encouragement.

  8. julianaliew says:

    What a timely post! I was starting to doubt my writing abilities as it didn’t seem like I had anything new to give, or a distinctive style to attract readers. Thanks for this!

  9. melanietoye says:

    I think focussing on a word count to write a novel and then to find your style, is not how writing should be. We should write because the story takes us to a place and when we stop writing, it may just be the end of the story. Never write more than the story requires.

  10. Harald Hagen says:

    This is a wonderful read. I much prefer “one million words” as a goalpost over the “10,000 hours to mastery” adage. It’s a direct call to action, much more concrete. Time sets up the illusion of other things you could do to clock in the hours. But words? Only one way to get those things out.

    Here’s to that clearing in the woods, past the swamps and bogs and wastelands of cringe-worthy writing, the miles of triteness and predictability and incredulity, and the storm winds of self-doubt. Here’s to that sunlit lake ‘neath unblemished sky, where words flow like water and inspiration is the very air we breathe. Here’s to style, to our muses, and to the lifelong journey of writerly toil.

  11. ilarrycoltin says:

    I enjoy reading, I am not a writer, so I hope my comment here is acceptable. I enjoy reading authors of prose and poetry who are ingenious, such as Heinlein, Heller, Poe, Thayer, Stout, Kipling, to name a few. Heinlein is famously quoted as saying, If you want to write, write.” As to a million words, from “Larry’s Book of Corollaries”, “One thousand words is worth a picture.”

  12. Mommy Write says:

    Great post. Thank you for sharing. It was just what I needed to read.

  13. This post hits home right now..thanks for sharing!

  14. […] What a Million Words Will Get You […]

  15. nickpelling says:

    I first read the “you’re not a writer until you’ve written a million words” line from journalist & sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, in a Byte Magazine column a couple of (Internet) centuries ago.

    But it seems that he probably got it from Robert Heinlein, while Elmore Leonard claimed to have got it from John D. MacDonald.

    http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=647855

    Me, I got from Agnes. :-)

  16. […] guest post! I’ve been following Ty since I read his Freshly Pressed entry on writing, What A Million Words Will Get You. He always has helpful information on writing, and this specific post is very much in the same vein […]

  17. […] What a Million Words Will Get You| James Moore A beautifully written piece about writing by James Moore. It is all based on how practice can make you better. […]

  18. […] any catastrophe it may take some time to come to terms with the aftermath. When I wrote about a million words a few years back I concluded that, upon reaching the million word benchmark, one should write a […]

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